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Monday, December 5, 2011

2,000 Years of Popes, Sacred and Profane

2,000 Years of Popes, Sacred and Profane
By Bill Keller
Absolute Monarchs
A History of the Papacy
By John Julius Norwich
Illustrated. 512 pp. Random House. $30.
John Julius Norwich makes a point of saying in the introduction to
his history of the popes that he is "no scholar" and that he is "an
agnostic Protestant." The first point means that while he will be
scrupulous with his copious research, he feels no obligation to
unearth new revelations or concoct revisionist theories. The second
means that he has "no ax to grind." In short, his only agenda is to
tell us the story.
And he has plenty of story to tell. "Absolute Monarchs" sprawls
across Europe and the Levant, over two millenniums, and with an
impossibly immense cast: 265 popes (plus various usurpers and
anti­popes), feral hordes of Vandals, Huns and Visigoths,
expansionist emperors, Byzantine intriguers, Borgias and Medicis,
heretic zealots, conspiring clerics, bestial inquisitors and more.
Norwich man­ages to organize this crowded stage and produce a
rollicking narrative. He keeps things moving at nearly beach-read
pace by being selective about where he lingers and by adopting the
tone of an enthusiastic tour guide, expert but less than reverent.
A scholar or devout Roman Catholic would probably not have had so
much fun, for example, with the tale of Pope Joan, the mid-ninth-
century Englishwoman who, according to lore, disguised herself as a
man, became pope and was caught out only when she gave birth.
Although Norwich regards this as "one of the hoariest canards in
papal history," he cannot resist giving her a chapter of her own. It
is a guilty pleasure, especially his deadpan pursuit of the story
that the church, determined not to be fooled again, required
subsequent papal candidates to sit on a chaise percée (pierced chair)
and be groped from below by a junior cleric, who would shout to the
multitude, "He has testicles!" Norwich tracks down just such a piece
of furniture in the Vatican Museum, dutifully reports that it may
have been an obstetric chair intended to symbolize Mother Church, but
adds, "It cannot be gainsaid, on the other hand, that it is admirably
designed for a diaconal grope; and it is only with considerable
reluctance that one turns the idea aside."
If you were raised Catholic, you may find it disconcerting to see an
institution you were taught to think of as the repository of the
faith so thoroughly deconsecrated. Norwich says little about theology
and treats doctrinal disputes as matters of diplomacy. As he points
out, this is in keeping with many of the popes themselves, "a
surprising number of whom seem to have been far more interested in
their own temporal power than in their spiritual well-­being." For
most of their two millenniums, the popes were rulers of a large
sectarian state, managers of a civil service, military strategists,
occasionally battlefield generals, sometimes patrons of the arts and
humanities, and, importantly, diplomats. They were indeed monarchs.
(But not, it should be said, "absolute monarchs." Whichever editor
persuaded Norwich to change his British title, "The Popes: A
History," may have done the book a marketing favor but at the cost of
accuracy: the popes' power was invariably shared with or subordinated
to emperors and kings of various stripes. In more recent times, the
popes have had no civil power outside the 110 acres of Vatican City,
no military at all, and even their moral authority has been flouted
by legions of the faithful.)
Norwich, whose works of popular history include books on Venice and
Byzantium, admires the popes who were effective statesmen and
stewards, including Leo I, who protected Rome from the Huns; Benedict
XIV, who kept the peace and instituted financial and liturgical
reforms, allowing Rome to become the religious and cultural capital
of Catholic Europe; and Leo XIII, who steered the Church into the
industrial age. The popes who achieved greatness, however, were
outnumbered by the corrupt, the inept, the venal, the lecherous, the
ruthless, the mediocre and those who didn't last long enough to make
a mark.
Sinners, as any dramatist or newsman can tell you, are more
entertaining than saints, and Norwich has much to work with. If you
paid attention in high school, you know something of the Borgia
popes, who are covered in a chapter succinctly called "The Monsters."
But they were not the first, the last or even the most colorful of
the sacred scoundrels. The bishops who recently blamed the scourge of
pedo­phile priests on the libertine culture of the 1960s should
consult Norwich for evidence that clerical abuses are not a
historical aberration.
Of the minor 15th-century Pope Paul II, to pick one from the ranks of
the debauched, Norwich writes: "The pope's sexual proclivities
aroused a good deal of speculation. He seems to have had two
weaknesses -- for good -­ looking young men and for melons -- though
the contemporary rumor that he enjoyed watching the former being
tortured while he gorged himself on the latter is surely unlikely."
Sexual misconduct figures prominently in the history of the papacy
(another chapter is entitled "Nicholas I and the Pornocracy") but is
hardly the only blot on the institution. Clement VII, the disastrous
second Medici pope, oversaw "the worst sack of Rome since the
barbarian invasions, the establishment in Germany of Protestantism as
a separate religion and the definitive breakaway of the English
church over Henry VIII's divorce." Paul IV "opened the most savage
campaign in papal history against the Jews," forcing them into
ghettos and destroying synagogues. Gregory XIII spent the papacy into
penury. Urban VIII imprisoned Galileo and banned all his works.
Most of the popes, being human, were complicated; the rogues had
redeeming features, the capable leaders had defects. Innocent III was
the greatest of the medieval popes, a man of galvanizing self-
confidence who consolidated the Papal States. But he also initiated
the Fourth Crusade, which led to the wild sacking of Constantinople,
"the most unspeakable of the many outrages in the whole hideous
history of the Crusades." Sixtus IV sold indulgences and church
offices "on a scale previously unparalleled," made an 8-year-old boy
the archbishop of Lisbon and began the horrors of the Spanish
Inquisition. But he also commissioned the Sistine Chapel.
Even the Borgia pope Alexander VI, who by the time he bribed his way
into office had fathered eight children by at least three women, is
credited with keeping the imperiled papacy alive by capable
administration and astute diplomacy, "however questionable his means
of doing so."
By the time we reach the 20th century, about 420 pages in, our
expectations are not high. We get a disheartening chapter on Pius XI
and Pius XII, whose fear of Communism (along with the church's long
streak of anti-Semitism) made them compliant enablers of Mussolini,
Hitler and Franco. Pius XI, in Norwich's view, redeemed himself by
his belated but unflinching hostility to the Fascists and Nazis. But
his indictment of Pius XII -- who resisted every entreaty to speak
out against mass murder, even as the trucks were transporting the
Jews of Rome to Auschwitz -- is compact, evenhanded and devastating.
"It is painful to have to record," Norwich concludes, "that, on the
orders of his successor, the process of his canonization has already
begun. Suffice it to say here that the current fashion for canonizing
all popes on principle will, if continued, make a mockery of
Norwich devotes exactly one chapter to the popes of my lifetime --
from the avuncular modernizer John XXIII, whom he plainly loves, to
the austere Benedict, off to a "shaky start." He credits the popular
Polish pope, John Paul II -- another candidate for sainthood -- for
his global diplomacy but faults his retrograde views on matters of
sex and gender. Norwich's conclusion may remind readers that he
introduced himself as a Protestant agnostic, because whatever his
views on God, his views on the papacy are clearly pro-
reformation?" It is now well over half a century since progressive
Catholics have longed to see their church bring itself into the
modern age," he writes. "With the accession of every succeeding
pontiff they have raised their hopes that some progress might be made
on the leading issues of the day -- on homosexuality, on
contraception, on the ordination of women priests. And each time they
have been disappointed."
Bill Keller is the executive editor of The Times

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